NIH proves immune to Trump’s budget scalpel

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The News:

Lawmakers expanded instead of slashed the budget for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in its bipartisan deal to fund the government earlier this week, essentially snubbing the Trump administration’s proposal.

@NIH budget expanded instead of slashed in bipartisan deal Click To Tweet

Congress augmented research funding by $2 billion over the next five months, securing $34.1 billion for the NIH. It’s the biggest boost the NIH has received in more than a decade, higher than at any point during the Obama administration.

President Trump had proposed cutting the NIH budget by $1.2 billion for the rest of the current fiscal year.

“The omnibus is in sharp contrast to President Trump’s dangerous plans to steal billions from lifesaving medical research, instead increasing funding for the NIH by $2 billion,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) said in a statement, according to The Hill.

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) said lawmakers saved the budget from Trump’s “draconian” proposals.

“We got rid of most of the draconian budget cuts proposed by President Trump, like cuts to NIH,” said Leahy, ranking member of the Appropriations Committee, according to the Huffington Post. “You can’t turn scientific research on health care on and off. You either continue it or you don’t.”

The spending deal did not address NIH spending for 2018, when Trump has called for slicing the NIH’s budget by about one fifth, or $5.8 billion.

Steve’s Take:

Several well-known hand gestures meant to disparage and/or mock another come to mind, but suffice it to say Congress let President Trump know quite clearly what it thought about his proposal to rip billions of dollars from the premier research agency.

In what seems like unusual, good news from Washington for a change, Congress struck a bipartisan deal that bluntly rejected Trump’s plan, sending a noisy message to the White House that medical research has wide support on both sides of the aisle.

NIH research funding has been on a downward trend for over a decade, but last year, Congress sought to reverse that trend, voting to increase the 2016 NIH budget by 5.9%. For 2017, Congress had recommended an additional $2 billion increase, a number on which it stood pat this week.

The agreement reached Sunday, April 20, 2017, also more than quadruples funds to fight opioid addiction, and preserved Planned Parenthood funding, at least for now, says Gizmodo. The NIH’s budget increase includes $400 million for Alzheimer’s research, $476 million for the National Cancer Institute, $120 million for the Precision Medicine Initiative to tailor medicine to individuals, and $110 million for the BRAIN Initiative to map the human brain.

If the proposed NIH cuts had gone through, it would’ve been a disaster, forcing labs to close and important research to stop in its tracks.

The Trump administration’s vendetta against medical research was always one of the strangest parts of its proposed budget, notes Max Nisen at Bloomberg.

But it is clear Congress has little interest in harming the NIH, which has already suffered through a pretty rough few years due to budget cuts and sequestration. That’s particularly meaningful for companies such as Illumina Inc., Bio-Techne Corp., and Thermo Fisher Scientific Inc., all of which produce equipment and other materials vital to medical research. The NIH funds many customers of these firms and is a backbone of the research ecosystem on which they depend. The better the NIH does, the better they do.

NIH funding doesn’t mean as much to the much larger pharma lobby–which spent $51 million in the first quarter of 2017, according to Bloomberg Intelligence. But the sector is definitely pro-NIH, and was a big supporter of the 21st Century Cures Act, a bipartisan bill that called for raising NIH funding and speeding approvals of new drugs and medical devices…

Basic research of the type the NIH funds is time-consuming and failure-prone. Pharmaceutical companies are thrilled when others run the gauntlet for them. A huge number of new and innovative drugs have their roots in NIH-funded research that was either licensed by a large pharmaceutical company or a smaller biotech. The NIH gets royalties, but they blanch in comparison to a successful medicine’s profits.

A longer-term NIH funding commitment would be preferable, Nisen says, but this deal is tangible proof for investors that the drastic cuts Trump proposed were never connected to political reality. Come September, the administration may well float big cuts to the NIH again, and that may even hit the stocks of life-science companies. But such concerns shouldn’t be taken all that seriously. Not now.

Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price had suggested at a congressional hearing that the NIH budget could be cut significantly without harming medical research by reducing grants for “indirect costs”–the federal dollars that help research universities pay for utility bills, heating costs, pricey equipment, and other expenses that support their biomedical labs. University administrators, who make up a powerful lobbying group, did not take kindly to that suggestion, says STAT News.

From the moment Trump proposed such steep cuts, Republicans joined Democrats in rejecting them.

Bottom Line:

“The election changed things in 2016, but this is largely the same Congress,” said Benjamin Corb, director of public affairs at the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. “This Congress has been supportive of this community, and they should be. And we are thankful for that.”

Steve's Take: Unusual #bipartisan display means #biomedical research funding is on upswing Click To Tweet

What is heartening, instead of increasingly maddening of late, is this frankly astonishing collaboration of key Republicans, including Senator Roy Blunt of Missouri, Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, and Representative Tom Cole of Oklahoma, joining Democrats in their support of increasing the NIH’s funding.

Hopefully, this unusual display of bipartisan consensus means biomedical research funding will continue in an ascending swing.